The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

I have to admit I almost put this book down in the first couple of chapters after realizing that prominent characters were a pair of conjoined twins that were cast as sideshow freaks. It just felt too schlocky. However, Nigerian/American author Chris Abani had come highly recommended and this book earned him the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. So, I kept reading. I’m glad I did, because the book ended up being deeply engrossing, probing, and grotesque. A perfect read for those summer days when the air feels thick enough to choke you and the thunderheads of an afternoon storm threaten from all directions.

It’s a dark and violent book that embedded itself in my brain like a parasite. None of the characters are “good” but each is likable in his or her own way. It’s better this way, not rooting for someone but knowing that everyone will come away with a deep loss.

With deep ties to apartheid, the book is not one to shy away from questions of racial discrimination, morality, and even scientific ethics. Indeed, if I had to guess, I’d say that Abani probably shies away from very little on the page. I’m eager to read his other work to see where this takes the reader. Further, Abani’s research for the book was clearly extensive and, with much of the book told in flashbacks, the historical elements are as engrossing as the narrative now. As you’d expect, the city of Las Vegas also becomes a character of note.

Much like reading Chris Pavone’s book earlier this summer, Abani’s work brought the genre’s sharp racial stereotypes into focus… but for different reasons. Abani challenges the white stereotypes of crime fiction by creating exquisitely developed characters who are consistently people of color. Yet, as a reader, I discovered my own implicit bias as I caught myself crafting mental images of white characters until their race was defined. It was jarring to see this in myself, but the awareness of it was meaningful and one reason why I selected Abani in the first place.

Read full reviews of The Secret Life of Las Vegas in:

This post is part of #MySummerOfMysteries, a project to immerse myself in mysteries, thrillers, crime writing, and whodunits. For each book I finish, I’m posting brief thoughts and reflections here. Please note that these are not intended as full reviews. To view my reading progress throughout the summer, click here.